Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Literary Life... Or Not. D. H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge, and Some Others In New Mexico When Time Was and Today

Give me the moon at my feet.
Set my feet upon the crescent like a Lord,
O let my ankles be bathed in moonlight,
That I may go sure and moon-shod,
Cool and bright-footed toward my goal.
A late in life poem titled "Prayer" by D. H. Lawrence, read by Mrs. Merriam Golden at Lawrence's memorial dedication ceremony in Taos, NM, September 15, 1935.

The little snippet above is from his later work, I believe it's called "Apocalypse,"  and I've taken it from the book about Lawrence called "D. H. Lawrence in New Mexico, the Time is Different There" by Arthur J. Bachrach, a slim but quite wonderful volume of tales and truths of D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett, Mabel Dodge and Tony Luhan (Lujan) -- among others -- at their ranches in and away from Taos and elsewhere back in the day. It was a time long gone, a time most different to be sure, a time few of us remember, but if we've read or otherwise absorbed the pertinent works by the pertinent people, a time we cannot forget, a time that lives still in Taos and round about.

Who were these people? What did they think they were doing?

The premise of "Utopian Vistas, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counterculture" by Lois Palkin Rudnick (like "D. H. Lawrence in New Mexico," published by UNM Press) is that all these Anglo ex-patriots came out to New Mexico after the First World War, many at the behest of Mabel Dodge Stearne (as she was when first she came to New Mexico in 1917, later after marrying a Taos Pueblo Indian, Antonio Lujan, she became Mabel Dodge Luhan), and here they created a counter-culture community based on the primacy and originality of the Native Indians and the Spanish settlers, the ultimate truth of art, and the purpose and primal beauty of the new community they themselves could -- and did -- create. They were said to have given up on the America they'd been taught to believe in and love and came to the realization that the true artistic spirit of the continent could be found in New Mexico, perhaps only in New Mexico, this vast and quirky, almost empty frontier land, where much has never changed in eons.

This is the place.

I've only been to Taos once, and I probably won't go back, but when I was there many years ago, I took the opportunity and the time to view the Banned Lawrence Paintings at La Fonda on the Plaza, simply because they were there and I was there and I could. There was little else I could do, given the fact I was still a smoker and the altitude was driving me crazy. In and out, that was the most I could handle.

Lorenzo and I go back a long way -- a long way in years, not so long now in distance, though of course he was long dead by the time I read any of his works or any of the works about him or saw any of the movies or plays made from his works or based upon his brilliant, brief life. He was long dead of TB before I saw his paintings in Taos.

When I was told I might have tuberculosis several years ago -- because I'd been to New Mexico and had become ill here over the Christmas holidays -- I didn't think, really, of the connections, of Lawrence's TB that he picked up somewhere during his sojourn in New Mexico, or of his repeated episodes of coughing up blood, nor did I even think of his red beard at the time.

Nope. By that time, I had gotten so far away from the literary world, the arts world in general, and the world of D. H. Lawrence in particular, that any memory I had of them was lost from consciousness, though perhaps they were locked in my bones, in my soul.

Not till I got here to New Mexico, "for good" as they say, and read some of my older books, and some newer ones about Lorenzo and Frieda, Mabel Dodge and the rest, did it begin to come back to me, powerfully, almost as if time had stood still and I was standing in a doorway framed by chip-carved woodworks, gazing aghast and amazed at... something.

Who were these people and why were they here?

Well, most of them weren't here in the sense we usually take it, in the sense of being right here in a place on a map, next to there, another spot on the map somewhere, where you could draw a line from there to the next place, drive a road along which the wildflowers bloom and the prairie dogs shake their fur and sun themselves after the rain. I mean, that's where I am, and I somehow doubt that many or any of Mabel's coterie were ever anywhere nearby, even if only accidentally.

They would take the train to Lamy from wherever it was they'd escaped from, and Mabel's car would come and pick them up for the long drive up to Taos and Mabel's Big House. Or if it was Lorenzo and Frieda and Brett, someone else, maybe Tony, would come and fetch them at the station, either at Lamy or in Santa Fe, and haul them up to the Lobo Mountain, twenty more miles above Taos, where they would camp and write and paint and complain and commune until it was time to leave once again.

That's how it was done. They would arrive at a place, they would be taken to another place by someone they knew or by a stranger, then they would be at that place, or another place, for such time as they were allowed to be there or needed to be there, and then they would go away, sometimes for a little while, sometimes for a long time. Some would return, many would not.

Lorenzo left Taos in 1925, five years before he died in France, and he never came back -- except as ashes, reputed to have been left on the bar at Doc Martin's Taos Inn and poured out on the ground by someone absent-minded,  or maybe his ashes were incorporated by Frieda into the concrete altar at the shrine constructed by Frieda's lover, Angelo Ravagli. By the time Lorenzo left he was not on good terms with Herself, Mrs. Dodge-Luhan of the Big House, and after one particularly sneery spat they never saw each other again. Frieda, though, came back after Lawrence's death and lived in Taos until her own death in 1962, or was it 1956? Accounts vary. (If it was Frieda who died in 1956, and I believe it was, who died in 1962 such that the memory of it, or of reading of it, is still burned in my brain? Somebody must have died in Taos in 1962. Who? Who? [Of course, it was Mabel...])

Brett (aka "The" Brett) came to stay at Taos as well, and lived a poor but rewarding life on the kindness of friends and of strangers alike, painting and writing and being beloved by all and sundry, until she too passed away like all mortal flesh in 1977.

Taos is a small town after all, or a collection of small towns, even today. And so is Santa Fe. Ultimately everyone knows everyone else. Whether they like them or not is another story. Rivalries and disputes are as common as the pinon nuts one idly munches on while sipping a cup of herb tea on the portale of a summer's morn, hearing the birdsongs while reading Proust or Gurdjieff or an old issue of Theatre Arts Monthly, or what have you.

How much smaller those towns must have been back in the day. And yet they held -- and to some extent still hold -- universes of men and women and their ideas of what should be or could be or what used to be or what will be. All surrounded by forest, nestled up against the mountains, the everlasting mountains, the sacred, implacable mountains, the mountains that endure, the mountains that prevail.

The mountains, some say, that oppress.

Wes Studi, after all, was arrested the other night for DWI on the Old Pecos Trail near San Mateo Rd in Santa Fe (we'd just been at the same spot the day before), arrested while trying to fix his tire-less rims, rims that had somehow lost their tires (how does that happen in Old Santa Fe one has to wonder; there are thieves, but still). He had nothing to fix them with, though, and he was drunk as a lord, and the police took umbrage. So he was just another Drunken Archetype of the Old and Not So Old West as he was hauled -- politely -- to the Hoosegow.

Is it the mountains that oppress him so? Or is it the mountains that give him and so many others their strength? Or both? Or none of the above? The mountain, after all, is just a mountain, neither giving nor taking back anything at all. It just is.

Michael McGarrity is a contemporary author of commercially successful mysteries who lives in Santa Fe, so successful he says his books outsold those of the deceased Tony Hillerman last year, what a wonder, and he says he has a message for those Anglos who would be attracted to the pottery-made houses and breathtaking skies of Simple Santa Fe, the City Different:

"Stay out of my town."

Oh really. So says the punk who thinks he has the keys to the citadel. Yes, well. One understands. The Anglos who have escaped from wherever they escaped from to set up their expat exile in whatever location they can find in what's still a very empty place have, as many point out, brought WalMart and ruin in their wake. It is not what the Natives thought they were calling forth when the trains came through so long ago, and the tourists were beckoned. "Come Visit the Land of Enchantment! But do not stay, thankyouverymuch."

No, I doubt I would want to live in Taos or in Santa Fe or any of the magnet sites of the psychic descendants of Mabel Dodge and her far flung coterie of sycophants, devotees, rivals, and her various infuriates and ingrates.  No, those are silly places -- not perhaps as silly as Sedona, the silliest place on earth -- but silly just the same.

We were walking up San Francisco St. in Santa Fe toward Archbishop Lamy's Cathedral Basilica the other day, and sure enough, as ever and always, three leather-skinned wrinkled crones, skinny as heck and weighted down with pounds and pounds of silver jewelry, came marching down the way, taking up most of the sidewalk, forcing us to detour around Their Presences. We cut our eyes at them, but perhaps we shouldn't have. Some of these Presences are quite a delight when you get to know them. Would we want to live among them? Probably not.

Even if we had the money.

Well yes. The Money of course is the key. Somebody had to have been rich to begin with or none of these people would bother to be here at all.

Mabel was ridiculously wealthy, and when she made her way hitherwards, she could set up whatever world she fancied as and where and when she wished, as if by magic, wah-lah! And then she could summon forth whoever she wanted. Padrona Dodge y Luhan. Casa Grande de Los Gallos. Si.

You can stay at her Big House tonight. Hell, you can stay the night in her big bed if you want. The Big House at Los Gallos is now the Mabel Dodge Luhan House Bed and Breakfast, much to the chagrin of purists -- but to the delight of tourists, some of whom have no qualms about complaining the day and night away that the place is old and full of spiders and dust and the floors creak and the walls are made of dirt. There is no air conditioning. There are no teevees. Who could live this way? Who? Why? Why would they want to?


Times change. Living standards aren't the same anymore. You must have certain comforts, devices, and items or you can't function any more.

How did Mabel and her coterie do it? Under such impossible conditions, at a time when so much was needed for a civilized life, so little was available on the high desert plateau beside the Taos Pueblo, where she claimed primacy of place (Santa Fe already being taken and all), and where she had her Indians build her a quintessential New Mexico compound. Even New Buffalo, the 1960's hippie commune down the road a piece, took on many of the visual and physical aspects of Mabel's compound at Los Gallos, and some of those who came to call said the same thing, decades after Los Gallos had become something else, "How can you live this way? The walls are dirt, the floors creak, there are spiders and dust, and there's no teevee. No air conditioning. No central heat. You're all going to die."

Yes, well.

Perhaps. Time will tell.

The doors are open for the morning air at our place today. The birds are singing, the feral cats are playing and sunning themselves out back.

Our guest from California has stayed for several days now, taking her time to absorb the character of the people and landscape, something she says she's never really been able to do before despite so many visits to New Mexico in the past. She couldn't do it, couldn't relax, couldn't truly unwind because there were so many, many things that had to be done so quickly before dashing back to California.

There wasn't time to absorb the essence of the people and the place, and even now, there isn't enough time to injest it all or even more than just a little.

All these creative souls came out here at Mabel's behest when time was and their descendants -- whether flesh or spirit -- are still here, smiling sometimes, cross at others.

Last night, the stars were out brillantly, the Milky Way a vibrant white slash across the sky, unseen for so many days because of persistent clouds. Last night, the sky was a magical and mystical opening into another reality, and later on, the moon, neither crescent nor full, sat staring into my bedroom window the way the moon does, cool and easy.

Long ago, D. H. Lawrence offered me a glimpse of an English world I'd never been to or even imagined, peopled with people I seemed to know instinctively. How could this be? How did he know? Then I learned of the connections, of my mother's mother's mother's origins near where Lawrence's mother had come from, among the people she and he'd been raised with, imprinted with the same images, feeling many of the same emotions.

And the time would come when Lorenzo's feelings and images of New Mexico, though nothing at all like my own, would form part of the mosaic of emotions and images that I draw from, that many of us draw from, in our endless efforts to learn and understand and to be.

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